Monthly Archives: January 2019

Cleo

Dancer, Model, Muse – Cléo de Mérode

She trained at the Paris Opera Ballet at seven years old, made her professional debut at age eleven, became a fashion icon at sixteen, and was muse to some of the most notable artists and photographers of all time—but who was this woman?

Someone destined for greatness from the beginning.

Her parents, the Austrian landscape painter Karl von-Merode–who claimed to be of noble ancestry–and a former Viennese actress, must have know their daughter would rise to fame and notoriety by giving her the name of one of the most powerful women in history.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born in France, either in Paris, Bordeaux, or Bairritz in 1875. At an early age, she showed an aptitude for dance and her mother, who must have been the original “stage mom,” had her audition for the Paris Opera Ballet at seven. She trained and performed with the company at age eleven. Her talent was only outshined by her beauty, and artists clamored to have her sit for them. By the age of thirteen, French greats Edgar Degas and Jean-louis had painted her.

Cleo de MerodeAlready the toast of the Paris dance scene by the time she’d fully matured, Cleo also became a fashion icon known for her trademark hairstyle–parted down the middle and fastened into a low chignon at the base of her neck– and her impossibly tiny waistline. Before long, Cleo was the most photographed woman in France, perhaps even all of Europe. Her image appeared on postcards and playing cards, and were much sought after as collectables. She was also depicted in statuary at the waxworks Musee Grevin, owned by famous caricaturist Alfred Grevin, in his “Behind the Scenes at the Opera” exhibit. She was the late 19th  century’s European “it girl” before she was twenty years of age.

In 1895 Cleo had the honor of sitting for the renown artist, Toulous-Lautrec. A year later, the sculptor Alexandre Falguire unveiled a sculpture that would start and onslaught of scandalous and sensational press for young Cleo. He’d cast the sculpture of her in the nude. Shocked, Cleo set out to make sure the public knew she had not posed for the sculpture sans clothing, by sending a note stating as much to the editor of Le Gaulois, the French daily newspaper. Unable to bear people seeing her with the “horrid bare statue in their minds,” she retreated out of the public eye for a time. 

However, the people of Paris were hungry for news of the beautiful Cleo, so they made up their own. It was soon bantered around Paris that the reason she wore her hair in the low chignon was to hide the fact that she had no ears. To dispel that rumor, Cleo came out into the light of day again, this time wearing her hair back off her face, or up on top of her head to show the world she indeed, had ears. 

But, the most salacious rumor about Cleo came out later that year. King Leopold II of Belgiam, aged 61, who had several mistresses, came to Paris for political reasons, but mentioned he’d come to see Cleo perform at the Opera Ballet. Rumors abounded that he was completely head-over-heels about the twenty-two year old dancing sensation. Stories were told of gifts of jewelry, and an apartment in the most fashionable part of Paris, solely for the purpose of romantic trysts. 

In reality, Cleo lived with her mother in a modest apartment, but Paris would not be satisfied without their scandals. Cleo and her mother, both practicing Catholics, could not bear the rumors of her relationship with the King (which stayed with her forever) and left Paris for St. Petersburg, Russia where she again danced her way into the hearts of the populace, including the Russian nobility, dukes and princes.

Cleo in costumeBolstered with confidence from her fame in Russia, Cleo returned to Paris and accepted an invitation to be the first ballet dancer to perform at the Folies-Bergere- for a more than generous salary. Her restored confidence brought her even more popularity, and she was again the toast of Paris. In 1897 Cleo decided to spread her dancing wings and traveled to the United States with her “mom-ager” in tow, and played for a month in New York City. Although the press was not kind, stating that she could not dance or act, her short stay in the United States was worth the trouble as she made over $9,000, which in today’s money would be over $58,000.

Unable to prevent public scrutiny, Cleo decided to embrace it. Her mother died in 1899, when Cleo was twenty-four years old. Now alone, Cleo had to manage her own career, and instead of hiding from the press, she invited them into her world. Reporters sat in on her meetings with theater managers and directors, and watched her rehearse for her roles. Her insight into fame, her talent, and her beauty resulted in her becoming an international star in adulthood. She performed across Europe and the United States, and adopted the dancing styles of the places where she toured. In 1904, she toured the Scandanavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When she returned to Paris, she turned over 3000 love letters to the editor of Le Figaro for publication.

Later in life, Cleo reduced her performance schedule and when not dancing spent her time pursuing her other artistic talents. An accomplished pianist, she spent time in solitude playing music, but never for the public, and she also took up sculpting. She crafted figurines of dancers, shepherds and shepherdess, which she sold for additional income.

In her early 50’s, Cleo retired from performing and moved to a villa in the seaside town of Biarritz where she pursued a career as a dance instructor. She worked into her eighties and died in Paris in 1966. 

Although she never married, Cleo was rumored to be engaged at various times to a Russian count, an American millionaire, a wealthy land owner, a Polish aristocrat, and of course, King Leopold. The rumors of her affair with Leopold are still alive today, but most accounts provide little proof. Cleo herself claimed to have only been involved with two men in her life, one who died of typhoid fever, and another who left her for another woman.  

While the rumors of her affairs linger, so does the legacy of Cleopatra Diane de Merode. She inspired many artists with her beauty, including her fellow countryman Gustav Klimt, whose primary artistic focus was the female form and female sexuality. Whether or not she had a relationship with the artist is unclear, but in 2006, a film titled Klimt starring John Malkovich, highlights Klimt’s relationship with a young beauty named Lea de Castro, whose character is inspired by the one and only Cleo de Merode. 

Sources: Stagebeauty.com, Wikipedia.com, Frenchsampler.com

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

Glamour shot - Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker – Entertainer, French Resistance Agent, and Activist

 

Born in 1907, Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine, as she was later called, was destined to be an entertainer. Born  to dancer Carrie McDonald and possibly Eddie Carson, (her father’s true identity has never been confirmed) who was also in show business, Josephine made her first appearance on stage at the age of one when the couple brought her onstage during the finale of their act.

After Carson abandoned McDonald and her young daughter, Carson took in laundry to help make ends meet. She soon married Arthur Martin, a kind but perpetually unemployed man. Josephine, at age 8 took work as a live in domestic for wealthy white families to help her mother put food on the table. After being abused by one of the women she worked for, Josephine left and made money on the streets of St. Louis as a street corner dancer. She married at age 13. The marriage lasted less than a year, and Josephine joined a street performance group called the Jones Family Band. Josephine, a naturally skilled dancer, added comedy to the troop’s act by acting silly and clumsy, but then crushing her dance routines at the finale.

At 15, Josephine married Willie Baker. Again, unhappy in marriage she divorced him four years later when her vaudeville troop decided to leave St. Louis for the bright lights of New York City. Josephine and the troop performed at the Plantation Club, and in successful Broadway reviews like Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, often in blackface.

Josephine’s distaste for conventional married life, and her ardent desire to become an entertainer, pained her mother, and the relationship between the two women became permanently strained. 

Josephine Baker Banana skirtAs she became more popular in New York City, Josephine was soon offered an opportunity to tour in Paris, France. She opened in La Revue Nègre at age 19 at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees, where she enjoyed instant success. The French loved her provocative dancing and singing in her barely-there costumes, and word spread about the beautiful and funny ingenue. After a tour of Europe, Josephine returned to France to star in the Folies Bergère. Wearing only a thong strung with a skirt of fake bananas, Josephine performed the “Danse Sauvage,” the dance number that would catapult her to fame. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

She starred in two French movies in the early 1930’s, Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam. With her growing wealth she moved her family from St. Louis Missouri to France, and purchased an estate in Catelnaud-Fayrac called Les Milandes. There, she acquired an assortment of animals including monkeys, cows and horses, dogs, and a pet cheetah she named Chiquita. Chiquita, wearing a collar of diamonds, often performed with her, but when she once jumped into the orchestra pit threatening the musicians, Chiquita had to go. 

Baker became romantically involved with Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, a Sicilian born opportunist who passed himself off as a Count. Although pretentious about his own reputation, under his influence, Baker’s star began to rise. Abatino became Baker’s manager, and under his careful guidance Josephine started training with a vocal coach and her talent went into overdrive. She took the lead in a six-month long run of a revival of the opera, La Creole, cementing her reputation as a first-class performer. She and Abatino decided to take her act back to Josephine’s home, the United States, to perform for the  1936 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. 

While the French and the rest of Europe drank in Josephine’s intoxicating performances and personality, the audiences of the United States did not. Her Ziegfeld Follies run proved nothing short of disastrous with low box office sales and rejection from the press. The New York Times called her a “Negro Wench.”

Heart-broken, Josephine returned to France and renounced her American citizenship. In 1937 she became a French citizen and married French industrialist Jean Lion, but the marriage only lasted two years. 

In 1939, France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland. Baker was recruited by French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent.” She gathered information for the French while at high society parties in Europe. She also carried secret messages to England written in invisible ink on her sheet music, as well as transporting notes with classified information pinned to her underwear. During this time, Baker also entertained British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa. For her efforts, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaul.

 

Josephine Baker - Glamour ShotBecause of peritonitis and then septicema caused by a miscarriage, Josephine had to undergo a hysterectomy. When she recovered, she returned to her French chateau with yet another husband, French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she’d met during her tour of Africa. Unable to have children of her own, Josephine adopted children from all over the world, twelve in total. She called them her “rainbow tribe,” and sought to prove that people of different races could live in harmony. Her Les Milandes estate now included hotels, a farm, and rides. The children sang and danced for paying visitors to the estate. However, the expenses of the farm, chateau, and her growing family put pressure on Josephine’s marriage and Bouillon left shortly after Josephine adopted her eleventh child. 

Although a citizen of France, Josephine supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s in America. Again touring the U.S., she and her husband, Jo, were refused reservations at several hotels, and were denied service in restaraunts because of racial discrimination. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences. A club in Miami finally met her demands, and this time touring America, Josephine enjoyed some success.

In 1968, Josephine lost her beautiful estate because of unpaid debts. She had to be physically removed from the property. Her friend Grace Kelly, whom she’d met while at The Stork nightclub in New York City, where they’d refused to serve Baker because the color of her skin, again came to her rescue and offered her a villa and financial assistance. Kelly had by then become princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco.

In 1975 Josephine starred in a retrospective revue, celebrating her 50 years in show business at the Bobin in Paris. Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed the endeavor. The show opened to rave reviews and was attended by notable personalities and celebrities including Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days later, Josephine was found unconscious in her room surrounded by newspapers depicting glowing reviews of her performance. She later died peacfully in her sleep. The autopsy report stated cerebral hemmorage as the cause of death. 

From the poverty stricken streets of St. Louis with little education, Baker became the first person of color to become a worldwide entertainer. She socialized with the most influential artists, writers, painters, entertainers, and intellectuals of her time. She served the resistence of her adopted country France, and she impacted the civil rights movement of her native country, America. She was an empowered woman who used her talent and celebrity to better the lives of others as well as her own. 

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!